By Tom Watkins
(CNN) — Paul Tanner, the last surviving member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, died Tuesday at an assisted-living facility in Carlsbad, California, his stepson said.
Tanner was 95 and died of pneumonia, said Dick Darnall in a telephone interview.
Tanner was born in Skunk Hollow, Kentucky, in 1917, but soon left to tour the country with his five brothers and their father, all of them musicians, during the early 1930s.
“Everybody was trying to survive during the Great Depression,” Darnall said.
After one gig, Miller, who scouted his own talent, came up from the audience and “asked Paul to become part of his band.”
The trombonist went on to play with Miller, who also played trombone, from 1938 until 1942. But when the band leader joined the military and started a military band at military wages, the civilian band broke up. For the next few years, Tanner stayed in Hollywood, where he did studio work, Darnall said.
At age 39, he enrolled at UCLA, which offered him a teaching job and advanced degrees upon his graduation four years later; he went on to teach music there for 23 years, Darnall said.
Tanner was also working with the ABC Orchestra, where for 16 years he played with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn and Arturo Toscanini, Darnall said.
His interests included early forms of electronic music, and he developed the Electro-Theremin in the 1950s, said Darnall. The device, which is mechanically linked to an audio oscillator, produced the eery, almost human sounds showcased by the Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations” and on the TV series “My Favorite Martian.”
The Electro-Theremin also was used in movies, including 1964’s “Strait-Jacket,” with Joan Crawford. “She was accused of chopping off everybody’s heads,” Tanner said in an interview in 1997 that is posted on his website.
“So, she was a psycho, they thought. There was one spot in the picture where she was to go up the wall, and they put her in a little small room, and then she got more and more and more excited and then she gradually got limp and passed out. And all through that, I’m the only thing playing.
“So, I told the guy who was going to conduct me, I said, ‘Just raise your hand up when you want more intensity, and lower it when you want less intensity, that’s all you got to do,’ which was mainly a case of widening the vibrato. There was no music for that, I was just to make an effect, that’s all.”
Though Tanner did not invent the device, “He enhanced on it and made it easier to play,” his widow, Jeanette, said in a telephone interview. “He made it more like piano keys.”
But the device proved to be so simple that he put it into an elaborate container to make it look nicer. “Otherwise, it would look like an oatmeal box,” he said.
During his teaching years, Tanner wrote a number of textbooks, and his classes proved popular, his widow said. “He used to crowd the auditorium area where he had his classes, and it got so full that the fire department closed the doors and wouldn’t let any more in,” she said.
Though he stopped teaching more than 30 years ago and moved to Carlsbad, “I still get letters from people that were his students,” she said. “They said that he changed their life.”
Tanner wound up giving the Electro-Theremin to a hospital, where it was used to measure hearing, she said.
In addition to his wife and stepson, Tanner is survived by another stepson, Doug Darnall. Tanner’s first wife, Alma, died in 1981 or 1982 after four decades of marriage.
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